Flathead County Republicans Make Primary Endorsements in Process Some Candidates Call ‘Disappointing and Divisive’

The county GOP endorsed six hardline conservatives who are running in competitive legislative primaries, bucking moderates who declined to participate in the process

By Denali Sagner
Republican supporters wave a GOP flag at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Nov. 8, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead County Republican Central Committee (FCRCC) announced its endorsements for a slate of upcoming primary elections, sidelining moderate candidates in favor of a handful of conservative newcomers. Of the 12 Republicans running in competitive primaries this June, only six participated in the committee’s endorsement process, with some who abstained calling the process “disappointing” and lacking “transparency and integrity.”

The committee in a March 17 email announced its endorsement of candidates Tom Millett for Montana House District 2; Shaun Pandina for House District 7; Lukas Schubert for House District 8; Steven Kelly for House District 9; Ed Byrne for House District 11; and current Speaker of the Montana House Matt Regier for Senate District 5. All six candidates face opponents in the Republican primary, which will take place on June 4. 

Committee Chair Al Olszewski told the Beacon that FCRCC formed a “vetting committee” to screen and interview candidates. The vetting committee then created a slate of suggested endorsements, which were voted on by FCRCC at-large. The vetting committee was comprised of one former legislator, one current legislator and three precinct captains. Endorsements were chosen based on candidates’ “campaign promises, public comments, endorsements, voting records, and more.”

Candidates were asked to provide “a minimum of 4 endorsements from local/county elected officials” and to answer a questionnaire that included questions such as “What are your thoughts on transgenderism?”; “What are your views on government funded education: pre K through higher education?”; and “What gun control laws proposed by Congress will you support?”

While FCRCC leadership described a thorough vetting regimen, candidates who refused to participate in the process painted the endorsements as biased and riddled with nepotism. 

“A small group within the central committee is running a racket with these endorsements, which is disappointing and divisive,” incumbent House District 7 Rep. Courtenay Sprunger, R-Kalispell, said in a statement. “I will not support something that dilutes the integrity of our party, which is why I chose not to participate. When members of the vetting committee donate to candidates months ahead of the vetting process and others on the vetting committee are related to candidates participating in the process, it’s obvious the process is blatantly biased.”

Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, the chair of the FCRCC vetting committee, contributed $400 to the campaign of Lukas Schubert last fall, an 18-year-old hardline conservative who plans to challenge incumbent Rep. Tony Brockman in a Republican primary in Evergreen. Regier’s donation was made before FCRCC began its endorsement process in January. 

Regier also donated to candidate Edward Byrne last summer, who was endorsed by the committee, before Regier took the helm of the endorsement process. Regier donated to candidate Shaun Pandina earlier this month. 

Keith Regier is the father of Speaker of the House Matt Regier, who the committee endorsed in his run for Montana’s Senate District 5. 

“Even in today’s politics, it’s shocking to see such a lack of transparency and integrity in a process,” Brockman said in a statement regarding Regier’s donation to Schubert ahead of his endorsement from the committee. 

Olszewski declined to name the other members of the vetting committee. 

Lee Huestis, a candidate for House District 9 who did not participate in the endorsement process, said it was “epically irresponsible” that the committee chose to endorse candidates in the party primary. Huestis said he has been involved in Republican politics in Kalispell, Havre, Billings and Bozeman for decades and has never seen a Republican central committee make primary endorsements. The candidate said that Republican voters should choose the winner of the party primary, and that the central committee should exist to be responsive to candidates.

He also criticized committee members for making donations to candidates ahead of their endorsements.

“How can you say that this was a fair and ethical endorsement when you’ve contributed to these candidates?” Huestis said.

“I expected to get hit hard by the Democrats. I expected to get hit hard by my opponent,” he added. “But I should never expect my own party to go after me.”

Gov. Greg Gianforte signs two of Rep. Courtenay Sprunger’s bills into law at the Old Courthouse in Kalispell on June 9, 2023. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The committee’s endorsements reflect an ongoing rebuke of Sprunger and Brockman by the local Republican establishment, which has favored hardline conservatives over more moderate candidates. 

FCRCC last winter released a letter denouncing Sprunger and Brockman for supporting a rules package that made it easier for legislators to pull tabled bills out of committee and put them back onto the floor for debate. The letter charged that the two representatives “lack the same ideology” as the party and that they “created a divide in our party to reduce the power of our supermajority and in turn, help the Democrat party.”

In response, Brockman wrote that he disagreed “with consolidating power” and said that “our Constitution established a Representative Democracy, enshrining the idea that power should rest in the hands of the people.” Sprunger said that she believed the rules package would make it easier to hear, and subsequently pass, more Republican-backed bills, and also cautioned against consolidation of power.

Sprunger during the 2023 legislative session carried eight successful bills, including the establishment of an adoption tax credit and the expansion of advanced opportunity funding for public schools. Brockman successfully carried 16 bills that amended rules for state boards and revised Montana’s alcohol code, among other policies. 

“You’d think our local central committee would be proud of that kind of work and reassured by a documented voting record. Instead, it’s been made clear the only route to securing an endorsement in this process is unquestioning loyalty to a small faction of our party. Frankly, I have far too much work to do for the people of my district and our state to waste time pandering to insider politics,” Sprunger wrote in a statement this week.  

Brockman wrote, “The people of House District 8 have a clear choice between voting for a proven and dedicated community servant and someone who hopes to benefit from a political committee’s cronyism in this year’s Republican primary … I am an Evergreen son, born and raised, with over two decades of demonstrated commitment to our community, rather than someone who’s too eager to please political bosses.”

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